Through a New Troller’s Eyes: July’s King Opening

15 07 2012

It seems that my friend Marlin is destined  to have literary deckhands. After a string of memoirists and bloggers, one of this season’s hands is Paul, an MFA grad focused on creative writing and fiction.

Paul isn’t green: he’s crewed on another mutual friend’s gillnetter, and worked the slime line of a Southeast processing plant. But trolling is new – a different fishery, a different culture. Like so many of us who find our footing through writing, he hasn’t wasted any time in processing his experience on the page.

While I frittered this town time away with a blend of necessary chores and soul rejuvenating socializing, Paul got right to work. I found him in my favorite spot at the Backdoor Cafe – the highly coveted corner table “office.” Intent on his computer, he explained his project – a 1000-word piece about our king salmon opening, a new sort of “Blessing of the Fleet.”

Paul posted that piece on his blog that evening. I read it right away – jaw slightly agape, stunned at his ability to fictionalize our recent experience, creating new characters on recognizable boats, while maintaining absolutely authenticity to the core emotions, struggles, and rewards of our business. It’s a rich, sincere piece of creative writing that captures the heart of trolling beautifully. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Here’s the opening paragraph to pull you in:

“Opening day on the trolling grounds and a glassy ocean receives the fleet after their long, bucking ride up from Sitka.  Sometimes July on the Fairweather Grounds is like this, like old friends returning to each other. But this July there will be only three more days of good weather.  The other days it will blow. Westerlies, southwesterlies, white caps and swells, twenty five knots winds that come whipping off the open ocean through the trollers’ welded bait sheds making a sound like a locomotive humming in the near distance.  With the winds there is rain, there is usually rain even in calm seas. It does not storm, exactly, but mists, sometimes aggressively; it is never warm.”

Read the rest of “Blessing of the Fleet” here.

 

And that’s it for another few weeks, friends. Cap’n J and I are fueling up this morning, then heading back out for our first coho trip of the season. This is where the grind starts: we’ll stay out until the Nerka’s hold is full. Hopefully we’ll be back in touch in another 10 to 12 days. Until then, be safe and be well, friends. 

 

 





From Fish-able to Festivity: The Changing Face of the Fleet

19 08 2011

Any fisherman worth his or her salt water knows there are no guarantees in this business. From beached loved ones craving a stone-solid return date, to green deckhands already calculating the crewshare on fish not yet caught, how often have we explained inherent uncertainties? But years of experiencing the same maddening pattern has taught us that one thing is a take-it-to-the-bank given: After weeks of Variable 10’s, glassy June seas, you can count on the weather turning to shit just in time for the July 1st Chinook troll opening.

Our first few days were those grimly known as “fish-able.” Wind with teeth, Easterly 25, and a sharp-stacked Southeast lump that kept us perpetually clenched in its trough. Stuff stored on the roof launched overboard. I buckled into a rarely-called-into-duty life vest. Wedged into a corner of the bunk, Bear the Boat Cat glared balefully, surely wishing she’d been left in her kennel at the Sitka pound all those years ago. Not fun, but definitely fish-able for a young couple who’d overdone it with a winter of dinero-devouring boat projects.

Bear isn't a fan of "fish-able" days.

We’re motivated to fish tougher this season, sure, but let’s be real: this is the Southeast troll fleet, not Deadliest Catch. So when the forecast deteriorated to two days of gales, Cap’n J and I made a beeline for Lituya Bay. (If that bee’s line was a spray-saturated UpDownSLAMcrash-ridden trek, that is.) The last boat across the bar before the tidal-dictated door closed for the night, we fell into frazzled sleep minutes after the anchor was dogged.

Chaos on the ocean, peaceful oasis in Lituya Bay.

Over the next day, the bay filled with trollers who’d fled every corner of the Fairweather Grounds, including one of the fleet’s elite. An iconic steel beauty, she was on her final trip with the highliner couple who’ve treasured her for over twenty years. Another fisherman had put his money down and the paperwork was complete, but their negotiation was firm: They would fish their baby for one last king opening.

These folks spent their career as reluctant parade masters. Couldn’t shift their tack three degrees without a cavalcade of tag-alongs immediately adjusting course to match. The final trip of beloved community members would require equal attention and hoopla.

“A day like this calls for a beach party,” declared one of our partners. His eldest daughter set off in their skiff, the official taxi service for the festivities. Chronically underestimated by those who don’t see the tough spirit within petite, Swede-pretty packaging, she cranked the Johnson from idle to wide open, rocketing around the harbor with quiet control that belied the outboard’s roar.

One skiff-full at a time, it wasn’t long before the bay’s pristine shoreline was hosting a rager. Four code groups represented, members mingled amiably over a 5 gallon bucket full of Rainier, freshly-caught shrimp, and a fifth of Jose Cuervo direct from one captain’s winter in Mexico. A vat of seafood chowder balanced over the beach fire. As the number of partygoers exceeded the available bowls and spoons, the few we had became communal, scraped clean and passed on to the next person. We ate smoked black cod dripping with oil and gooey-frosted chocolate cake from our fingers, then licked them clean.

It was hard to believe folks could be so casual, forced to take a day off at the start of our time-limited, high-stakes opening, but as one fisherman observed, “Crap weather, crap fishin’…Might as well enjoy our lifestyle.”

Just a quarter of the Sitka sneakers ashore that day. (Photo by Angela Amos)

An intense transition is happening within the Southeast troll fleet right now, as one generation phases out and another steps up. Fishermen I grew up viewing as extended family, pseudo-uncles and aunts who kept a watchful eye on dock rat boat kids, are placing hand-lettered “For Sale” signs in their cabin windows. I’ve rarely seen the changing of the fleet as clearly evidenced as it was on the beach that day. Young skippers joked with the deckhands from whose ranks they were only recently removed, while old timers circled together, marked by the wide-legged stance of men who’ve spent decades urging their bodies to hold fast against the sea. Watching our elders reminisce, knowing gatherings like this would become leaner each season and we would never regain their history and knowledge, I wished the force of their shared memories could stop the relentless passage of time.

History you can't replace, among this bunch.

But when the beer bucket contained only empties and the glacial silt-heavy shore had been reworked into boot-sucking quick mud, the clock began ticking again. The taxi service fired back up. Boats who’d rafted together peeled apart, and trolling poles unfurled like wings. With the forecast giving the go-ahead, rejuvenated trollers streamed back to work the next morning. After all, as Joel and I jokingly remind each other, “We are here to catch fish and make money.”

Midway into the afternoon, we realized we hadn’t seen that legendary boat back on the drag. Turned out her owners had headed back to town. They’d caught enough to fill their freezer for the winter, and truly, how do you follow up the biggest retirement beach party in recent history? So this one’s for you two – you know who you are – with gratitude for your years, from the protective eye you kept on the boat kids of yesteryear, to waving a friendly hand on the tack to the new skippers of today. Enjoy the novelty of a summer ashore, until we see you again. A spot on the drag is waiting, yours to rightfully reclaim, aboard whatever vessel brings you back.

The party over, taking the taxi home.





Going Green: Training New Longline Crew, Part 1

4 07 2011

We’re somewhere in the Southeast Gulf of Alaska right now, in the midst of our king salmon opening, so here’s a story from my May halibut fishing, brought to you by WordPress’s great scheduled-publishing option. “Going Green” was originally published May 19th on www.alaskawaypoints.com, in my column, “Southeast, Variable.”  This post has been slightly changed from the original.

Sunshine embraces a deep swell as we drift on our designated spot. We couldn’t ask for a better day to start this season’s first halibut trip, but the anticipation Martin and I feel is tempered with the anxiety of training Ross, a first-time longline deckhand.

We huddle up in the Charity’s cabin to discuss our game plan. We both have the historical perspective to appreciate how much easier our longlining experience is compared to the derby days, when halibut fishing was a free-for-all frenzy, 48- to 96-hour openings where you didn’t sleep, eat, or stop until it closed.  Compared to those days of lost boats and broken bodies, we’ve got it easy under today’s Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program. But we don’t talk about that. Deliberately severe, our tone is designed to convey this fishery’s gravity and risk to someone whose experience is limited to a couple troll seasons.  Parrot-like, we repeat, “Longlining is a different animal.”

Martin and I will snap on all of the gear, but I hand out sheathed red Vicky knives for everyone to wear at their waist. “If you ever get hooked, cut the gangion, not the groundline. If you cut the groundline and it’s the side that’s connecting you to the boat, that’s it – we can’t get you back until it’s too late.”

Deck full of gear, boxes full of bait.

Without a drum on board, we set from 55-gallon Rubbermaid tubs. Each tub contains one skate, 300 fathoms – 1800 feet – of coiled line. We have 16 skates on board, and will put out 2 sets, 8 skates each.  No old salt knot-tying skills required; Martin has spliced stainless quick links into the ends of all our skates. Ross will connect and monitor the line going out, so we put on our serious voices to discuss this job.

“Always, ALWAYS clip the bottom of the first skate to the top of the second, and so on. Double and triple check your work. This is beyond critical.”

Several moments later, Ross revisits this, a concerned furrow forging his brow. “What happens if, despite my best efforts, I hook them up the wrong way?”

The detailed answer involves explaining that we’ll suddenly have 1800 feet of line flying overboard in one massive, disastrous snarl, but our captain has a more succinct response, punctuated with a long, flat stare: “We’re fucked.”

****

Over the years, I’ve played deckboss on several friends’ boats. You’d think 7 years as a social worker might influence my training tactics, that I’d approach green crew with patient explanations, nonjudgmental correction, and empathy for the overwhelmingly foreign world they suddenly find themselves in. You’d be wrong. I’m a very good deckhand, but a terrible teacher.  Though the guys I’ve trained all became strong, competent crewmen, they had an unnecessarily hard, demanding classroom under my tutelage. Full of unfair expectations, I want to see things done Just So, and I want them done yesterday. I want alert eyes and quick hands, a clear mind that is obviously tracking what’s going on, a coworker who will observe how something’s done and then do it that way himself.

I might as well be compiling a wish list for an ocean-going Mary Poppins, with such impossibly unreasonable criteria for what makes a good crewmate, and have periodically shaken my head in self-disgust. Seriously, Tele? Does it really matter if he does it this way, instead of that? But moments of self-awareness don’t equate behavior change, and I suspect Ross is in for a steep learning curve.

****

For today’s training purposes, we put out only one set of 8 skates. “Makes my productivity sense twitch, but this is the right way to do it,” Martin sighs. As the saying goes, the only thing worse than not getting ‘em is getting ‘em, and if we set all 16 skates, Murphy’s Law would surely guarantee that we’d land on a major smash with one crewman who’s never cleaned a halibut.

In spite of the anxiety, setting goes smoothly. Covetous albatross croak hoarse complaints as baited hooks sink quickly out of sight and our bird avoidance gear streams parallel to the outgoing gear. Ross takes to his job quickly, calling warnings to us whenever the end of a skate approaches. The tension coiled in my belly loosens as I toss the flagpole overboard. “We’re fishin’!”

We're fishin'!

Cleared of tubs of gear and baited hooks, the deck sprawls like a skating rink. Slippery like one, too: Ross and I scrub the sheen of pollock oil and hose off smeared humpy guts, to the muttered delight of the fulmars treading water right beneath our scuppers, gobbling each morsel that flushes overboard. When everything has been properly set up for hauling (indeed, Just So), I give one final, critical survey. It passes, so raingear is peeled off and hung back up.

Martin shuts down the engine and says, “We’ll reconvene in 3 hours, have some lunch, then start hauling.” Bright sun paints the cabin walls, but we immediately head for our bunks, preparing for the intense go-go-go pace that’s just ahead. Before I can wonder too much about what our first set will bring, the sounds of water lapping at the hull next to my head and the hen-like clucking of seabirds lullaby me to a sound sleep.








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